What does terrorism tell us about peace?

This is a guest blog written by Murray Ackman, Research Fellow at the Institute for Economics & Peace

Since World War II the world has become much more peaceful with many structural improvements decreasing the likelihood of armed conflict between major powers. However, while most indicators measuring violence have improved, the last decade has seen a historic decline in world peace. Terrorism is at an all-time high, battle deaths from conflict are at a 25 year high and the number of refugees and displaced people are at a level not seen in sixty years.

The spread of terrorism coincides with an increase in armed conflict. Deaths from terrorism have risen in tandem with battle deaths. From 2006 to 2016, deaths from terrorism increased 67 per cent, while battle deaths increased by 66 per cent.

These trends are interlinked: terrorism and terrorist tactics are overwhelmingly more likely to occur as part of an ongoing military or paramilitary campaign within an existing armed conflict. In 2016, this correlation was very pronounced with 95 per cent of terrorist attacks occurring in countries embroiled in armed conflict. This reflects the increased likelihood that terrorism occurs due to the presence of armed conflict and that terrorist tactics are more likely to occur in an armed conflict zone.

Unsurprisingly, countries involved in armed conflict are more susceptible to terrorism. This is partly due to a weak state and the absence of enough mechanisms to resolve conflicts peacefully. Terrorism is also one of many tactics employed by insurgencies and paramilitaries in a civil conflict. Terrorist groups like ISIS, Boko Haram and the Taliban all engage in military attacks as well as extensive terrorist activity.

Countries with the highest number of battle deaths such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen also have very high levels of terrorism. The recently released 2017 Global Terrorism Index found that the 20 countries most impacted by terrorism were all involved in an armed conflict.

What is driving this change?

The factors driving the increase in terrorism are similar to the reasons behind an increase in both the number and duration of internal armed conflicts. Non-state actors, including terrorist groups, are able to acquire resources and can utilise online platforms to spread their message to a wider audience. This has extended the length of more armed conflicts and has lessened the incentives to maintain local support as groups can seek resources externally. Furthermore, the spread of tactics between groups and between countries has effectively lowered the barriers to entry for conducting terrorism. The use of less sophisticated methods focusing on a variety of targets has spread across the world. Most notably this has seen an increased use of improvised explosive device (IEDs), which was used as a terrorist tactic following the US-led invasion of Iraq. The use of IEDs has since spread to other conflict zones including in Nigeria, Somalia and even in more peaceful societies such as with the May 2017 Manchester bombing in the United Kingdom. The use of modified drones highlights another tactic that has spread from the battlefield to non-conflict affected areas.

As a result of this shift, terrorism has also increased in countries where there is no active armed conflict, including many OECD member countries in Europe and North America. The number of attacks in non-conflict countries has increased in the last five years and in 2016, OECD member countries experienced the highest number of deaths from terrorism since 2001.

ISIS has been the primary driver behind an increase in terrorism in OECD member countries. There has been a 67 per cent increase in attacks and a nearly 600 per cent increase in deaths from terrorism since 2014. But many of these deaths resulted from a small number of attacks that inflicted very high casualties.

However, terrorist attacks in OECD countries and other non-conflict-affected countries are not as deadly as attacks in conflict-affected countries which averaged 2.4 fatalities per attack in 2016. This compares to 1.3 fatalities in non-conflict affected countries. There are numerous possible reasons for this variation in fatality rate. Countries experiencing conflict generally have easier access to more military grade small arms and bomb making capabilities while countries not in conflict tend to be more developed and so can spend more on intelligence gathering, policing and counterterrorism. 

Countries suffering from conflict also experience the most costly economic impacts from terrorism. These countries are mainly situated in the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In 2016, Iraq once again had the largest economic impact of terrorism as a percentage of GDP, at 24 per cent. Afghanistan is the only other country where the economic impact of terrorism is higher than ten per cent of its GDP. 

This disproportionate economic cost to terrorism, which is borne by less developed countries, highlights the importance of focusing on the attainment of positive, rather than negative peace (or the absence of violence). Countries with improving levels of Positive Peace record higher per capita growth rates. This is due to the fact that countries with high levels of Positive Peace are more likely to maintain stability and recover from shocks so avoid the likelihood of conflict.

By investing in holistic and systemic improvements in the attitudes, institutions and structures that create peaceful societies, countries emerging from conflict can transition from a country that has contained violence to a country rich in Positive Peace. This approach can be challenging to implement in underdeveloped countries where there are competing needs for government and business investment. To help address this need, earlier this year, the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP), which also publishes the Global Terrorism Index, released the Positive Peace Report 2017. This outlines a framework for policymakers to understand how investments may be targeted while also illustrating the correlation between areas of investment seeing as some pillars are more critical at different stages of peace.

With more countries experiencing terrorist attacks and world peace levels declining, it is more important than ever to understand the correlations between terrorism and conflict. As the analysis within the Global Terrorism Index and Positive Peace Report show now more than ever, the global community needs to increase its peacebuilding efforts and resolve armed conflicts.

To access interactive maps on the Global Terrorism Index and to view the full report go to http://visionofhumanity.org.

This article has been published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.